THE NECESSITY OF ATHEISM was the title of a short pamphlet written in 1811 by the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley while he was an undergraduate at University College, Oxford. At a time when Britain was fighting for its life against Napoleonic France and the principles of the French Revolution, a pamphlet with such a title and on such a subject was regarded as dangerously seditious and Shelley was expelled from the college. Many years later I myself attended University College (or Univ, as it is known) and found that the story of Shelley’s expulsion is a much-treasured part of the college lore. I thought there was a good subject here for a drama and so indeed it proved.
The main inspiration for the style of the piece was the sort of madcap, wildly exaggerated caricature for which the English cartoonists of the day, and especially James Gillray, were renowned. I therefore wanted the play to include a Gillray-style madcap chase scene, which is in fact a nightmare suffered by the Master of the college, as he struggles with the dilemma of trying to be fair to a young, impetuous undergraduate and meeting the demands of Lord Eldon, the Lord Chancellor and an Old Member of the college, who is demanding Shelley be expelled.
THE NECESSITY OF ATHEISM is a comedy, but one with a serious message.
In the original 2013 production, which played at the ARU Drama Studio in Covent Garden, Cambridge; at the Cambridge Drama Festival; and at the Old Fire Station, Oxford, the Master was played by Emily Luthentun, who also designed the lighting. Emily is a highly talented performer, director and lighting designer and the link takes you to her website.
In 2016 Anglia Ruskin Creative took the play to the Edinburgh Fringe. Reviewers’ comments included:
“The issues this gem raises are as relevant today as in 1811.” Jan Hewitt (on the preview performance in Norwich)
“Absolutely amazing performance: witty but thoughtful script executed marvellously through imaginative and beautifully realised characters.” Becky Cooper, Golden Fire Theatre Company, author of “Making Monsters” (about Mary Shelley and the writing of Frankenstein)
“…a whimsical tale, a light-hearted challenge to free speech and hierarchies of power.” thefword.org.uk
“… the script … keeps the laughs coming, and balances farcical chase sequences with serious and pertinent ideas about rights and freedoms.” The Scotsman
“What a joy! What a delight to hear the English language written so skilfully and spoken so well: Shakespeare, Sheridan and Shaw would surely have shaken the hand of Dr Sean Lang and Director Sabrina Poole and their lovely Cast…” Richard Franklin, Fringe Review.
A review of the original production, which was staged alongside THE USUAL INCENTIVE, appears here, and Richard Franklin’s full Fringe Review piece is here.
The script of THE NECESSITY OF ATHEISM is now published by Lazy Bee Scripts and is accessible here.
Some examples of Gillray’s cartoons
SHELLEY: Do you really think I’m in trouble, Tom?
HOGG: Yes, I do.
SHELLEY: Good. In trouble is the only place for an honest man in these times.
HOGG: Bysshe, you are a fool.
SHELLEY: It is no folly to stand up for our liberties against a government that would take them away.
HOGG: Is that what this is about? Bysshe, I am as ardent a supporter of liberty as you, but think a moment: would you really prefer to live under Bonaparte?
SHELLEY: And why not? Let him come, I say. Let him march in triumph through Whitehall, his drums drumming and his banners held high. What possible harm can he do that our government has not already done a hundredfold?
HOGG: For God’s sake, Bysshe, will you add treason to sedition?
SHELLEY: Consider, Tom: Bonaparte lands and decides to subject old England to French tyranny, just as he has done throughout Europe.
HOGG: So you do accept he is a tyrant?
SHELLEY: Of course I do. But how will he set about his tyranny, do you suppose? How does one dismantle an ancient constitution like ours? Perhaps he begins by suspending our hallowed right of Habeas Corpus. Let no-one in England feel safe from arrest at the whim of an officer. Except there is no need: our government has already done it for him. Very well, he says, let England’s old freedom of speech die. Whoever criticises his rule, be it in speech or print, shall be charged with sedition and imprisoned by the courts. Ha! says John Bull, what new tyranny is this? Except it is not new: our government has already done it. Very well, says Boney, I shall clamp down on your ancient right of assembly. No more shall Englishmen meet freely and speak on the matters of the day: any who try to do so shall be imprisoned. What d’ye think of that, my fine English fellows? Why, Boney, they reply, what a dullard you are, to be sure: our government did that long ago. All right, says he, I shall censor your press, I shall suppress your newssheets and your poets, I shall charge your theists and atheists with sedition, I shall tax your bread, put your artisans out of work and forbid them to combine in protest. And what shall England reply? Why, Boney, you waste your time and breath: there is nothing, literally nothing, that you can do to trample on our freedoms that our government has not already done to the people, whom it designates with contempt as “the swinish multitude”. And sitting plum in the centre of that government, that conspiracy of scoundrels against England’s freedom, right at its heart, if it can be said to have one, justifying, defending and strengthening this tyranny by every trick of law his wicked wits will find, sits the Lord High Chancellor of England, Fellow of our own dear College, failed candidate for Chancellor of the University of Oxford, his Grace the noble Lord Eldon. I tell you, Tom, if I regret anything about my pamphlet it is that by denying the existence of God I deny also the existence of a hell into which I can cast his black soul.
SHELLEY: They didn’t listen, Tom. They didn’t listen.
HOGG: Who was there?
SHELLEY: The Master. The Dean. The Chaplain. They had my pamphlet in front of them. I was going to explain it. I was going to explain the logic of my argument. But the Master didn’t want to hear. He just asked me very fiercely if I wrote it.
HOGG: What did you say?
SHELLEY: I said nothing.
HOGG: Good man. Don’t incriminate yourself.
SHELLEY: He asked me again: Did you write this pamphlet? I said I wouldn’t answer and he had no right to demand it of me in such a tone.
HOGG: That’s the spirit, Bysshe.
SHELLEY: So I said that might be the way the Inquisition works in Spain, but it was no way for an Englishman to conduct himself.
HOGG: Oh this is fine, Bysshe!
SHELLEY: He asked again: “Did you write this?” I said I would not answer so impertinent and improper a question.
HOGG: Bravo Bysshe!
SHELLEY: And then he said I was expelled and must leave the college by tomorrow morning.
HOGG: Just like that?
SHELLEY: The Dean took out a big paper already drawn up with my name on it saying I was expelled, with the College Seal at the bottom.
HOGG: Already drawn up? Bysshe, they had made up their minds before you went in. That is no way of proceeding. That is no trial! It is travesty of justice!
SHELLEY: Yes, that’s what I thought.
HOGG: Bysshe, I shall go in there and I shall tell them so.
SHELLEY: Would you really do that for me, Tom?
HOGG: Well, I would…
SHELLEY: You are a true friend, Tom.
HOGG: Wait there. They must give you a chance to put your side of the case. It is the basic right of an Englishman, guaranteed in Magna Carta. And if they won’t listen to reason, I shall write to my father. He has a very good attorney who will take this case on, I am sure of it. You wait there, Bysshe – I’ll deal with this.
SHELLEY: Why Tom, you really are a noble fellow.
HOGG: I’ll make ‘em see reason.
(HOGG knocks at the door. We hear the MASTER’s voice call “Come in” and HOGG opens the door and enters the room. He closes the door behind him. We hear voices, then raised voices. SHELLEY sits slumped in his chair, mouthing “I am expelled”. Then the door opens and HOGG comes out again.)
HOGG: I am expelled.
SHELLEY: What? You too? Why?
HOGG: I said I agreed with every word in your pamphlet and if they were going to expel you they might just as well expel me. So, er, they did.
SHELLEY: Oh Hogg, this is splendid!
HOGG: Is it? I doubt my father will see it that way.
SHELLEY: Nor will mine, but what care I for that? We are martyrs in the cause now, you and I. Cast out of Eden we shall toil in the world and grow strong, fed on the good meat and drink of English injustice.
HOGG: It’s meat and drink I’m thinking of. My father is bound to cut my allowance.
SHELLEY: Tush! We shall write, you and I, and live romantically on the pittance our sonnets bring us.
HOGG: I don’t write sonnets.
SHELLEY: Hogg, Hogg, sweet Hogg, be not downcast. We have a life ahead of us. If Oxford does not want us, let us brush its ungrateful dust from our feet and follow the road to London, fame and fortune. Come, Hogg, come – the Master wants us out of his college by tomorrow morning, and what the Master wants the Master shall have. We’d better hurry. I feel dizzy when I think of how much packing there is for the servants to do.
THE NECESSITY OF ATHEISM was first produced in 2013 at Anglia Ruskin (Cambridge) with an all-female cast (photos below). In 2016 it was produced by Anglia Ruskin Creative (Norwich) at the Edinburgh Fringe – photos from that production follow after the Cambridge ones.